The Star Tribune Editorial Board has repeatedly called for an emergency state funding plan if Congress doesn't restore devastating cuts to Minnesota's vital community health centers. State Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, merits praise for drafting a smart, temporary aid package to help these safety-net clinics and the 180,000 Minnesotans they serve.
It's still two weeks before the 2018 session kicks off. But over the weekend, Schultz, a forceful voice for public health at the Legislature, announced that she has readied a bill and is seeking bipartisan support. She reached out to state Sens. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick. Both have long been community health center champions and can — and should — help Schultz round up support. Community health centers (CHCs) provide care on a sliding-fee scale in medically underserved rural and urban communities.
Gov. Mark Dayton has also admirably stepped in to spotlight the centers' vital work and call for solutions. In a strongly worded letter released Monday, he urged the state's congressional delegation to restore federal funding as soon as possible. We'd like to see Dayton lend strong support to a state "Plan B," too.
To keep clinics operating smoothly, Schultz's bill needs to pass early in the session. Congress has failed to reauthorize CHC grants since last September. It could restore these funds this week as it faces another spending bill extension deadline. But with the bitter fight over immigration, it's hard to be optimistic.
Because of the rolling nature of federal grant disbursements, congressional inaction has already caused some Minnesota CHCs to lose funding and face layoffs and closures. If nothing is done, federal dollars will dry up by midsummer for the state network, which operates 70 locations. Dayton's letter estimated that the state's CHCs could see $27 million cut from $38 million in annual funding.
Schultz's bill would provide $5.8 million in aid this year and $29.3 million for fiscal 2019. She commendably worked with state CHCs to arrive at the sums and time frame needed to make the clinics whole. The bill also has a clause that sensibly requires the centers to repay the aid if Congress restores the federal grants in a timely fashion.
There are real consequences when Congress can't get its work done or uses vital health care programs as leverage during budget negotiations. Minnesota shouldn't let the expectant moms, sick kids, frail elderly and others relying on these clinics pay the price for political gamesmanship. State lawmakers have a moral obligation to ensure they don't.